Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Presents Jonathan Meese: Sculpture

The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), North Miami presents the first major solo museum exhibition in the United States for German artist Jonathan Meese, renowned for his multi-faceted work, including wildly exuberant paintings that mix personal hieroglyphics and collage, installations, ecstatic performances, and a powerful body of sculptures in a variety of media.

On view now through February 13, 2011, the exhibition Jonathan Meese: Sculpture focuses on Meese’s three-dimensional work, including his first ceramic talisman created when he was 15, small assemblages and dioramas from the beginning of his career that have never been shown before, massive bronze sculptures, recent large-scale ceramics, and models and set designs for theatrical and operatic productions. Jonathan Meese: Sculpture is organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami and is curated by MOCA Executive Director and Chief Curator Bonnie Clearwater. It is part of the museum’s Knight Exhibition Series.

Although all of Meese’s work flows from a philosophical position he has defined for his artistic pursuit, sculpture is the way he gives permanence to his ideas. As Bonnie Clearwater notes, “These figures essentially are frozen surrogates for Meese and the various guises and manifestations of the forces of good and evil that he creates in his performance work.”

This exhibition comes at an important moment in Meese’s development. Surveying his work of the last ten years, he finds that his complex installations have “put viewers on the wrong track” about him as an artist. With their abundance of materials they seem chaotic. However, the organization was very simple and based on layering one item over another until the surface of the walls is covered in a curtain of images and objects. The aim of the exhibition is to direct viewers’ attention to each piece in order to slow down the looking process.

Meese was born in Tokyo, Japan in 1970 to a German mother and British father, and moved with his family to Hamburg, Germany, when he was three. When he was 15, he created a glazed ceramic figurine and had no idea that this object was an artwork until his teacher told him it was. For him this small lumpish ceramic that looks like an animal trying to move through a wall was a powerful talisman that he has held onto until this day and used as the Holy Grail prop for his staging of a production of Wagner’s opera, Die Meistersinger in 2006.
Meese’s artistic inclination remained dormant through a troubled adolescence only to be awakened when he was 22 and suddenly started to draw. The second early sculpture in the show was one of the works that gained him admission to the Academy of Fine Arts, Hamburg, where John Bock and Christian Jankowski were fellow students and Los Angeles-based performance artists Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy were among the most admired artists.

The exhibition includes many small sculptures Meese made in art school, some of which he imbedded into temporary installations and are among the few artifacts that remain from this period. Most are made with a simple gesture that suggests the artist’s sense of play as an essential part of the work. They stem from a personal mythology that combines forces of good and evil drawn from ancient times, history, and contemporary popular culture. These early small assemblages and dioramas exist in their own miniature universe. Plastic cowboys and Indians are the most frequent actors that populate the mise-en-scenes. In one such work Meese filled the lid of a bottle with brown paint that hardened to the consistency of parched earth. A tiny cowboy, his guns drawn, teeters on the edge of the lid, essentially chasing himself in a circle. In another work Meese fashions a fairy tale-like confection by transforming an ornamental white bird into a snowcapped mountain scaled by Lilliputian mountain climbers.

The Beatles appear in several of these early works. In one construction the pop stars are reproduced as photocopy cutouts looming like gods inhabiting a rickety pantheon. Although Meese was born after the breakup of the Beatles, he grew up in Hamburg, which played an important role in Beatles mythology as the city where they experienced a major breakthrough playing in clubs. Being half British himself, the presence of the Beatles in his work connects him with his father’s heritage and is an early example of his fascination with popular culture icons.

Also among these early works are dioramas in suitcases. Although Duchamp’s Box-en-Valise establishes an art historical precedent , Meese’s dioramas prefigure his forays into stagecraft for theatrical and operatic productions and his own performances. Other works from the onset of his career take their cues directly from the theater including an array of masks.
As his early assemblages are very fragile, Meese turned to casting in bronze to give his work permanency. Among the earliest of the bronzes are busts of his mother and himself. These function on the most primal psychological level. These are the faces he knows the best and he translated his memory of both his and his mother’s features through the touch of his hand as it formed the clay sculpture from which the bronze was cast.

In his works, Meese frequently references the James Bond villain, Dr. No. He has watched the film Dr. No repeatedly and finds its battle of good and evil cathartic. By referencing Dr. No and other villains both real and fictional in his work, Meese aims to exorcise evil from the world. In Wir, Erzkinder lernen Macht (Susses Dorf der Verdammtin) = Die Goren, 2007, Meese considers the grotesque girl and boy holding hands as Dr. No as a child or as the demonic children in the 1960 Science Fiction film The Village of the Dammed. As Meese notes, “In this work they are playing at being evil, but they could just as easily have assumed the guise of hero or king,” noting that “children have so many masks” and “art is permanent child’s play.” Meese associates his giant bronze, Der Kampfer de Large (Der Zeushagen von Troja de Neutral), 2008, with the James Bond film Thunderball, in which the secret agent’s mission is to retrieve stolen nuclear warheads. He also references in the work’s title the Greek god Zeus, and transforms his powerful thunderbolt into a massive phallus-shaped modern day missle.

Meese also makes direct reference to the sexual power of ancient sculpture in other works in the exhibition including the monumental Propagandist, which is modeled after a tiny Pompeiian amulet. With its sheep’s face, female breasts, enormous male phallus, and cloven hoofs, Meese’s enlarged version of the ancient amulet makes the figure comical.

Some of his bronze sculptures are casts of assemblages similar to his early works. The mask-like face of the 2006 statue Napoleon was originally composed from little toy aliens and flippers were used to form his flat feet.

The most recent sculptures in the exhibition are ceramic figures that look like soldiers. Their streamlined form suggests bombs, phalluses, or science fiction creatures like Darth Vader from Star Wars. These polychrome works combine elements of painting with sculpture. The pastiche of photographic imagery on the surface of these ceramics connects them with Meese’s paintings and installations that similarly layer photographic sources. Most of the photographs on the ceramics depict Meese, himself, and consequently like his other sculptures, are permanent manifestations of the artist’s performative work.

The exhibition also includes models for theatrical sets Meese designed for Frank Castorf’s staging of Pitigrilli’s Kokain, 2004, Castorf’s production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger, at the Volksbuhne, Berlin, 2006, and most recently the opera Dionysos by Wolfang Rihm that premiered at the Salzburg Festival, July 2010. The construction of these models is closely connected to the early assemblages in the exhibition and demonstrates the important role sculpture and three-dimensional work has played in Meese’s artistic practice.

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